Allied bombs rocked downtown Baghdad yesterday, triggering fireballs and badly damaging two government ministries, while Iraqi President Saddam Hussein told a Soviet envoy that he is "prepared to extend cooperation" in efforts to end the Persian Gulf War.

In a statement that drew a skeptical response from the Bush administration, Saddam reportedly told emissary Yevgeny Primakov that Iraq is prepared to help the Soviet Union and other nations find a peaceful end to the conflict, which began four weeks ago tonight. But Saddam also condemned "vindictive and destructive aggression" by the United States and vowed that Iraq would make "the sacrifices needed until the aggression and aggressors are beaten back."

Baghdad Radio, in a broadcast monitored on Cyprus last night, said Primakov had delivered a private message from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to Saddam. The Iraqi leader then replied, "Iraq is prepared to extend cooperation to the Soviet Union and other nations and agencies in the interest of finding a peaceful, political, equitable and honorable solution to the region's central issues, including the situation in the gulf," the broadcast added.

Administration officials noted that the statement failed to mention Iraq's occupation of Kuwait and appeared to tie peace in the gulf to the settlement of other regional problems, such as the Palestinian issue, a linkage the United States repeatedly has rejected.

"This does not change our policy one iota. Saddam Hussein has all along had it within his power to find an end to the war" by ordering a unilateral withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, State Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler said last night.

Saddam's session with Primakov, the highest-ranking diplomat to see the Iraqi leader since the war began Jan. 17, came during a heavy bombardment that some Iraqi officials claimed was an attempt to intimidate the Soviet envoy's peacemaking efforts.

U.S. military authorities acknowledged "a healthy day of bombing" in the Iraqi capital, as one senior general put it, but denied any link between the raids and the talks between Primakov and Saddam.

"Our bombing is not related to the visit of the Soviet envoy. . . . Most of these bombing raids are planned several days in advance," Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon. Explaining why the bombing might have appeared particularly intense, he added: "We are going after hard targets in Baghdad. Therefore, it takes more bombs on each target in order to be successful."

More than 25 explosions shook central Baghdad, reducing the five-story Ministry for Municipal Affairs on Haifa Street to rubble and damaging the nearby Justice Ministry, according to correspondents' reports. The Associated Press quoted witnesses as saying at least six people died and 17 were wounded. Cable News Network correspondent Peter Arnett quoted Iraqi officials as claiming the attacks were "a signal by the U.S. that they don't want Primakov here."

In Kuwait, more than 50 oil field fires are now burning, Rear Adm. Mike McConnell, intelligence director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the Pentagon yesterday. Some fires have been deliberately triggered by Iraqi explosives, apparently in an effort to obscure potential targets with smoke, while others may have been caused by allied air strikes against refinery facilities, McConnell added.

U.S. officials have said they welcome Primakov's efforts to persuade Saddam to vacate Kuwait. But they added that the ongoing bombardment of the capital -- which included a massive explosion that shook the Al-Rashid hotel where Primakov is staying -- is intended to disrupt command and control of Iraqi forces and bring the war home to officials in Baghdad.

Primakov's efforts come after a week of international diplomatic maneuvering and fitful efforts to end the fighting. Baghdad rebuffed an earlier effort by Iranian leaders to find a solution to the war. Foreign ministers from more than a dozen non-aligned nations agreed during a meeting in Yugoslavia yesterday to send their own mission to Iraq.

The Soviet envoy was dispatched after Gorbachev cautioned last weekend that the allied war effort might exceed the United Nations goals of forcing an Iraqi withdrawal and restoring the Kuwaiti government. Today, the U.N. Security Council plans to meet formally for the first time since November when it authorized the eventual use of force against Iraq.

Several hundred miles south of the allied raids on Baghdad, U.S. and Saudi air, naval and artillery forces hit Iraqi tanks and troops in southeastern Kuwait for three hours early yesterday in one of the biggest operations of its kind since the war began. The battleship USS Missouri and U.S. warplanes supported a Marine Corps artillery battalion and three Saudi artillery battalions in the bombardment, which began about 4 a.m. (8 p.m. Monday EST), according to the Reuter news service. War Strategy Endorsed

Iraqi artillery and tank forces had clustered in entrenched positions, providing "a good opportunity for us to take them on," Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal said in Riyadh. Neal offered few additional details of the attack, but unnamed U.S. officers told correspondents that the Missouri had fired 18 rounds from its 16-inch guns while the Saudis fired Brazilian-made multiple rocket launchers in what was seen as a test of alliance forces to coordinate their fire.

Further reflecting the allied military coordination, British Defense Minister Tom King and French Defense Minister Pierre Joxe met President Bush and other U.S. officials yesterday at the White House and endorsed a common war strategy.

King told reporters that "there's some work to be done" in shredding more of Iraq's military with air attacks before launching any ground offensive. "We want to see a tilt in the balance of military advantage {on the ground} so that when our forces embark . . . {the} advantage is with them."

Joxe said he and U.S. officials had reached accord on the timing of a future ground offensive, but declined to provide details. He said the decision would be made by heads of state based on "a mix of military and political considerations." He also firmly disputed suggestions by Gorbachev that the war was causing excessive civilian damage.

The State Department said yesterday that Secretary of State James A. Baker III is asking West European countries to contribute to Israel's defense costs while considering increased U.S. aid. Tutwiler said the administration now considers Israel a "front-line state," putting it in the same category as Egypt, Turkey and Jordan, all of which have received billions of dollars in allied assistance to compensate for war-related losses.

News of Baker's request came as the Israeli Embassy announced the cancellation of a planned visit here later this week by Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy. Israel Radio reported that Levy was furious that a visit to Washington Monday by Defense Minister Moshe Arens, a Levy rival, had not been coordinated with him.

The subject of paying for the war came up yesterday at the Defense Department too, although spokesman Pete Williams declined requests by reporters to estimate the cost of combat to date. Those details are expected next week when the administration sends Congress a special supplemental budget request covering Operation Desert Storm.

In an unexpected move, Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney authorized the military services to exceed certain 1991 spending limits in order to pay bills connected with the gulf operation, Williams announced. Because of unforeseen costs, the "operation and maintenance" accounts of the services are expected to run out of appropriated funds soon. Cheney invoked the Civil War-era "Feed and Forage Act," which allows war commanders to pay for medicine, transportation, fuel and expenses without advance congressional approval.

Most of the excess costs stem from transporting more than 511,000 U.S. troops to the Persian Gulf region, Williams said, although fuel bills are being paid by the Saudi government.

Although U.S. allies have promised monetary and in-kind contributions to defray some American costs, the fund cannot be tapped until Congress appropriates the money. Pledges now exceed $40 billion, but less than $6 billion was reported to have been received as of Jan. 28.

In a brief exchange with reporters, Bush continued the administration's attack on Iraqi efforts to portray widespread civilian damage and casualties from the month-old allied air campaign. He accused Saddam of running a "one-sided propaganda machine cranking out a lot of myths and falsehoods."

Bush defended the United States from criticism that the aerial attacks have been less precise than advertised by the military. "It's simply not true," he said. "And what's overlooked is a lot of the brutality that's so evident and so purposeful on his part: the treatment of the prisoners, the Scud missile attacks {that} have no military value, the environmental terrorism."

King, sitting beside Bush in the Oval Office, added, "We didn't see many television pictures of the casualities in Kuwait, did we?" He claimed that "tens of thousands of civilians . . . must have lost their lives there." Iraqi Deserters Interviewed

Deserters continued to trickle into the allied lines, with eight Iraqi soldiers surrendering to an Egyptian armored division after crawling through a minefield and ignoring an Iraqi sentry's order to turn back. One of the eight, Saad Shab, 29, a 10-year army veteran, told the AP that he had fought in Iraq's long war against Iran and had no desire to do battle again.

"Fighting, fighting, fighting, and for what? Nothing," he said.

The Iraqi and his comrades, among the first to be interviewed by Western correspondents, confirmed that Iraqi fortifications include deep trenches filled with oil that could be set ablaze to thwart an allied ground assault. Most deserters, including some from Republican Guard units, are heading north toward their Iraqi homes, rather than risking the minefields and execution squads to the south.

Sitting on a blanket in the sand, the Iraqis, most of whom were sergeants, wolfed down hunks of bread while Egyptian soldiers dismantled the Iraqis' Kalashnikov rifles. The defectors said they were from a front-line unit suffering from spare parts and fuel shortages, with most vehicles out of commission because nearly all fuel is rationed for tanks. Much of the allied bombing appears to be concentrating on the second tier of strategic reserves, the Iraqis said, adding that rumors in the ranks put the death toll among Iraqi troops at 20,000.

In his Pentagon briefing, Kelly provided a rough picture of the Iraqi "order of battle" in Kuwait. Infantry divisions are arrayed along the Saudi border and gulf coast, with armored or mechanized infantry divisions forming a second echelon behind them and the Republican Guard dug in to the north as a strategic reserve.

To tighten the noose around the Iraqi army, Kelly said, the allies continue to strike bridges across the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which dominate the supply lines from Baghdad down to Basra and into Kuwait. "We would like to see those forces at the front atrophy," he said. "We would like to see them starve."

"Virtually everything militarily that Saddam Hussein has to bring to bear . . . is either destroyed or combat ineffective," McConnell added. "The only effective fighting force left is the army dug in in the field. Why he's sitting there and taking this pounding, we're not quite sure."

Added Kelly, "If they are saving their Sunday punch, they may be losing it even as we speak."

Allied successes in cutting Iraqi supply lines have forced many units to burrow into their pre-stocked food and water supplies, Kelly said. The worst provisioned of the units appear to be getting little more than a "small piece of bread, four spoons of rice and very little water" each day, Kelly said, although McConnell cautioned that there is no firm evidence that the army is close to collapsing.

Iraqi vehicles captured in the Saudi town of Khafji last month indicated "a lack of discipline or a lack of supervised effort of maintenance of this equipment," said Neal, the Marine general. He attributed that to the bombing campaign. "I don't think anyone in his right mind is going to lift up the top of his engine compartment to check the oil while F-15s and B-52s are flying over," he told reporters in Riyadh.

If an eventual allied ground offensive carries into Kuwait City, Kelly said, that "will be a bit of a trial because combat in cities is just a very difficult form of the art. Sometimes it can be house to house. But once we get to the city, I'm not sure the people that are holding it are going to want to fight house to house."PLO Sees War Spreading

McConnell, asked about Saddam's movements in the past four weeks, replied, "We know from the history of the Iran-Iraq war that he moved frequently, often spending the night in a mosque . . . . So we know he moves frequently."

Iraqi defiance continued unabated yesterday. "Iraq is ready to engage in the land battle at any time," Deputy Prime Minister Saadoun Hammadi declared after arriving in Algeria as part of a tour through North Africa and the Middle East to rally support. "Iraq is in a good situation, and there is nothing that incites worry or fear."

Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat, in an interview published yesterday, voiced his confidence in Iraq's ability to resist "at least 30 months." Speaking in Tunisia to the Italian daily Il Manifesto, Arafat, a staunch ally of Saddam, also warned, "The war will spread throughout the Middle East, and maybe even beyond its borders. When a fire breaks out in a house, it is difficult to save some of its rooms."

The war's environmental damage continued to generate concern yesterday. An official for the World Society for the Protection of Animals predicted in Jubail, Saudi Arabia, that the massive slicks now smearing the Persian Gulf will claim "the highest toll ever . . . as far as an oil spill goes." Thousands of birds on the northern Saudi coast have died or are dying and many more birds, marine turtles and manatees will be killed, John C. Walsh told the AP.

In other war-related developments, Jordanian officials reported that Syria had agreed to supply almost one-fourth of the nation's daily oil needs. The unnamed officials, cited by the AP, said the agreement should ease but not solve a serious energy shortage in the kingdom caused by a cutoff of oil from Saudi Arabia and allied attacks on oil tankers traveling from Iraq.

Sources in Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, said that country would allow the return of some expatriate workers, including Iraqis, whose reentry had been barred because of the war. Citizens of Sudan, Jordan and Yemen, as well as Palestinians with valid visas, may return to Saudi Arabia if they wish, according to the sources quoted in an AP report. Iraqis who want to return will be required to obtain Interior Ministry approval in addition to reentry permits.

Staff writers Dan Balz, David Hoffman, Dan Morgan, R. Jeffrey Smith and staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.